Back to school safety: How are districts spending their millions?

By Jessica Klein

This is the second year in a row Robert Pezzella, school safety director in Worchester, Massachusetts, will buy Go Buckets for the 48 schools in his district. Filled with tactical items meant to provide classrooms with the essentials in case of a lockdown, Go Buckets include duct tape, firstaid kits, blankets, and “resources to help barricade a classroom door,” says Pezzella.

That’s not all Pezzella has in mind for this school year’s security budget. He also plans to up his district’s digital defenses and continue to provide emergency training for staff.

Under the superintendent’s budget, Pezzella received $125,000 for safety this year. Then there’s the federal funding, from which his school district got $140,000 last year. “This year coming up, I hope to receive the same amount,” he says. He also has $80,000 to spend, from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, on cameras and locks.

After a student at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida shot and killed 17 classmates and staff members on February 14, 2018, the federal government designated almost $1 billion for school security budgets. The money is being distributed to school districts throughout the country over ten years. Now, about one year into the budget’s distribution, schools have installed emergency equipment, implemented training sessions, and are making plans on what to buy for the years to come.

Schools prioritize emergency training and staff over gear

Schools in Kentucky’s Whitley County got $339,004 to install shatter-resistant film over windows and doors, put up security cameras, and buy handheld radios for staff, Roll Call reported in March. Union County schools in North Carolina got $283,398 for video doorbell systems, along with another $30,000 for a program that scans social media for threats, and up to $36,000 for a mobile app that helps school staff better reach police in an emergency.

School security funding has been used in a wide variety of ways, from Pezzella’s GoBuckets, door locks, and security cameras—to the more outlandish solutions, like a school in Pennsylvania that provided its classrooms with miniature baseball bats to ward off shooters. But lately, it looks like schools are focusing less on gear and more on teaching staff how to best handle emergency situations—and detect threats in advance.

“Folks that look…first at minor policy changes [and] staff engagement education…ultimately make a much bigger change much faster than high ticket items that they think they have to buy and invest in,” says Dan Pascale, vice president at Margolis Healy, a security consulting firm for schools. “I think schools who have been smart with their dollars understand that policy and education is an equal component in this.”

Pezzella’s safety planning, for one, isn’t just about GoBuckets. He emphasizes the importance of emergency training, requiring all public school staff in Worchester to take online courses in lockdown procedures. These are followed by hands-on drills with local law enforcement.

The safety program Pezzella uses is ALICE, which stands for Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate. The ALICE Training Institute currently provides its services to 4,200 K-12 schools in the U.S., teaching staffers the most effective tactics for responding to a violent threat.

Training and hiring people, as opposed to just buying safety gear, has been a key aspect of schools using their security budgets this past year. “Most of these districts are using the money they are getting through grants and bonds to hire more security guards,” Mary Scott Nabers, CEO of Texas consulting firm Strategic Partnerships, told RealClearInvestigations in January.

Students need physical and mental protection

An ACLU report from March found that schools across the nation were hiring police officers at the expense of mental health counselors. There are more 27,000 police officers in the country’s schools, the report found, and just 23,000 social workers. The ACLU called this “extremely troubling,” because “school psychologists are usually the staff most qualified to assess a student’s safety risk to themselves and others.”

Some schools are trying to turn this around. Texas schools’ public safety approach—worth $110 million and laid out by the Office of the Governor last year—focuses on people. It entails hiring crisis response counselors, providing mental health training for first responders, and retaining long-term school counselors and “retired peace officers” (like former sheriffs) to act as school security.

In Ohio’s Columbiana district, some of the budget is allocated toward mental health, and bringing in “counselors that are not already employees of the district,” says Columbiana superintendent Donald Mook. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, $45 million worth of unused funding from schools’ safety grants is going to teacher’s getting educated on mental health issues. They’ll be taught, for example, how to identify students that might harm themselves or others.

Some gear requires training, so school staff can better physically protect students without having the institutions having to hire police. Teachers in Columbiana have to learn how to operate the schools’ new Threat Extinguisher canisters, which unleash pepper spray up to 20 feet. The security system also includes lanyards with panic buttons to alert local authorities.

“I don’t think anybody gets a job in education considering it being dangerous,” says Mook. “We went with the panic buttons because we don’t actually believe that everybody should have to engage somebody in an active shooter situation.”

Since last summer, Ohio approved a new security budget called For Safety and Success, which Mook says will get his county about $200,000 across the area’s three school buildings over the next two years. “All that money is earmarked for what it can be spent on,” he says. “The state of Ohio dictates that for us.” Ohio schools will have to put the money toward mental health programs, counselors, and staffers focused on physical and mental wellbeing.

Schools must protect their entry points

Infrastructure is an important part of school safety, particularly when it comes to entrances. “Every school should have an entryway that is secured,” says Pascale. Ideally, these entryways should be monitored by a live person, or at the very least, a security camera, he says, followed by a “secondary physical barricade—an office or door you must go through prior to fully entering the school.”

Chippewa Valley schools in Michigan announced a proposal at the start of last school year to, among other things, replace door locks, “improve interior doors systems,” and better secure entryways. The county’s sheriff, in a press release, called these “essential security enhancements.”

But infrastructure-related spending initiatives aren’t always seen as genuine pursuits of student and staff safety. Richard Michael, who runs a website that tracks bond proposals for California schools, told RealClearInvestigations that the wording of security-related bonds can be worryingly vague. “A district can redo the entryway of a school, then add a few cameras and maybe a buzzer access system and say, ‘See, it’s for security,’ ” Michael says.

Even with nationwide security budgets for public schools, some districts are left behind. “We’re one of very few in our county that do not have new buildings,” says Mook. While other Ohio districts were able to design newer buildings with restrictive entryways in mind, two of Columbiana’s schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Being able to better control visitation through entryways is currently on Mook’s wish list, but it’s “quite expensive.”

Detecting digital threats before they get physical

Danger can also seep into schools through digital entryways. “Nearly every act of violence that we see now, there are indicators that have been posted online,” says Pascale. About half of school violence “was telegraphed on social media,” he’s found.

Schools in more than 36 states across the country use a system called Social Sentinel, a product that scans social media and emails, then uses AI to identify threats and alert the appropriate schools. The system costs “roughly $3 to $4 per student per year,” says Gary Margolis, Social Sentinel’s CEO and founder, who used to work with Pascale at Margolis Healy.

Greg Boulanger, the director for public safety in Bristol, Connecticut, whose district comprises about 8,000 students, told CBS News that Social Sentinel flagged two students who’d posted about self-harm as of November 2018. The schools were then able to get them help. In New Jersey, superintendent of Old Bridge Township, David Cittadino, said that Social Sentinel discovered “after hours threats” to local schools this past year, which police were able to investigate before schools opened the next day.

Some Worchester schools use Genetec, a connected security system that lets users monitor multiple security cameras and visitor access through a single interface. Pezzella wants to expand Genetec to other schools in his district, but doing so won’t be cheap. A license to renew the more advanced version of the system is roughly between $400 and $500 per school each year.

Federal funding isn’t enough

In addition to federal security budgets, state legislators have also served up school safety funding. An August 2018 report by The 74, a nonprofit education news website, found that states provided school safety budgets ranging from $300,000 in Missouri to $400 million in Florida. Wisconsin passed a $100 million budget for a combination of staff training and safety gear, Pennsylvania allocated $60 million for violence prevention programs, law enforcement, and security upgrades, and Washington state designated around $772,000 to spend on regional school security programs.

Lots of states aren’t satisfied with the funding that’s already been allocated to school safety, especially in the wake of the multiple mass shootings that took place at the end of this summer. Governor Charlie Baker, of Pezzella’s home state Massachusetts, is still waiting on approval for an additional $30 million budget for schools to update their security systems, which he proposed in January—after $15 million had already gone toward school safety improvements and mental health programs.

Kentucky passed a law in March requiring schools to have ready-to-go safety measures, but it’s still waiting on funding, which Republican budget leaders in the state said they’d provide in 2020. And in June, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed bills for school safety measures that will require emergency training for school employees. That will take time and money to implement.

Arming teachers presents further perils

Guns remain a problem in this country, even when they’re in the hands of teachers. A January report from Vice News found that five states started letting its teachers carry firearms since the Parkland shooting (14 states had already allowed teachers to do so).

“There is no empirical data to support that armed teachers or staff will prevent a violent encounter,” says Pascale. Even with police training, he adds, using a gun to stop an assailant “increases the opportunity for accidental injury to unintended victims and can present significant challenges to responding law enforcement officers.”

“There is a laundry list of reasons why not to do this,” says Pascale. Besides, there are myriad better ways for schools to spend their security budgets than on gun training for teachers.

Photo by Jose Alonso on Unsplash

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